The Gaming Brain: Drugs

Hormones and Neurotransmitters

Now, lets get into the drugs (well, the ones we create ourselves at least, Hormones and Neurotransmitters). There are five key chemicals which play critical roles in the Enjoyment and Excitement of Gambling, each in its own way, and each working together with the various activated regions in the Brain, as covered in our previous article: The Gaming Brain: Active Regions.

Dopamine is often referred to as the Pleasure Chemical in popular culture, but the current opinion is that it confers Motivational Salience. In other words, dopamine signals the perceived motivational prominence (i.e., the desirability or aversiveness) of an outcome. If you are a gambler, stepping into a Casino will probably get your dopamine flowing.

Serotonin literally makes you happy, sleepy and a bunch of other things. It helps regulate mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function. It’s pretty much the Seven Dwarves from Snow White all wrapped into a neat package.

Noradrenalin, is the Go-Getter of these chemicals. It literally gets you going and it gets you getting. In most people, Norepinephrine release is lowest during sleep, rises during wakefulness, and reaches much higher levels during situations of stress or danger, in the so-called fight-or-flight response. When someone suddenly, unexpectedly, pushes all in at the Poker table. Call or Fold? Fight or Flight?

Glutamate is the oil that keeps your gears turning, or at least the chemical that gets you excited about things. It is used by every major excitatory function in the vertebrate brain. When you get excited about gaming, that’s the Glutamate and the Anterior Cingulate Cortex working together.

Opioids immediately brings Heroin to mind, but there are endogenous opioids produced within your body as well. Your body reacts to these in a different way than to those ingested or injected. These endorphins are responsible for example for the “Runner’s High” when you go for a longer run, and in Gaming, it makes you feel relaxed, content and happy when you have “survived” a tough spot at the tables.

Note that these chemicals also assist the brain to carry out different tasks. Imbalances in these chemicals can lead to a changed behavior, but you can’t take a pill of any of the above to get the Gambling urge. At least not yet. There are a few to help you get rid of it though.